Women in Ministry

There are various responsible and respectable Biblical interpretations on the role of women in positions of ministry and leadership. This paper is offered as a statement of why Mill City Church supports women exercising the spiritual gift of leadership and shepherding in our house, including serving in the capacity of pastor. For a more thorough framework and explanation we recommend Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women by Lucy Peppiatt, Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James and The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight, PhD.

Though the issue of women in ministry/leadership has been divisive, our goal is unity around the essentials of the Christian faith as stated in the Apostle’s Creed, while also encouraging lively dialogue about other matters of belief and practice.

The creation account:

  1. Genesis 1:26-28 affirms that God’s original intent in His good and perfect creation was for male and female as a unit to be seen as the image of God and to exercise co-rulership over creation. “Then God said, ‘Let US make MAN in OUR own image, in OUR likeness, and let THEM rule…over all the earth.’ So God created MAN in His own image, in the image of God He created MAN, male and female He created THEM. God blessed THEM and said to THEM, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule…over every living thing.’” (See also Genesis 5:2)
  2. When the Lord specifically speaks of the creation of woman and her role in relation to man, He describes the woman twice (Genesis 3:18, 20) as a “helper suitable to him,” and creates the woman from his side (not his head or foot). The key word in these passages is the Hebrew term “helper”—what does it imply? It cannot imply an inferiority of status or subservience, since the same Hebrew term is applied to God to describe His relationship with Israel (Psalm 33:20; 70:5).
  3. After sin enters creation, God declares the “Adamic curse,” a curse first upon the serpent, then the woman and finally the man, in Genesis 3:14-19. Only then does God declare, along with many other tragic consequences of sin (such as intense pain, hardship and ultimately death), that for the woman “your desire will be (“for” or “to control”) your husband.” But instead “he will rule over you” (this represents the destruction of the original united co-rulership pictured in Genesis 1:26-28).

Conclusions: Some believe that male “rulership” is now the normative ideal until Jesus’ return in order to protect the woman’s unique role in the home and society.

Our position is that this status of ruled and ruler is part of the fallen creation that, like the rest of this curse which was cancelled through the death burial and resurrection of Jesus, should begin to be reversed within the structures and relationships in the “new creation” of the new community of faith in Christ, i.e., the church (2 Corinthians 5:17) as a sign of what is to come when all things are redeemed and restored to the way they were intended to be.

Old Testament examples of female leadership and authoritative teaching:

  1. Miriam, the sister of Moses, is a prophetess (Exodus 15:20)
  2. Deborah (Judges 4 and 5) is a judge over Israel = a leader and redeemer as well as a prophetess who spoke the word of the Lord to Israel and its leaders (see especially Judges 4:4-5). She leads, settles disputes, and ultimately takes supreme command of the army in a decisive battle. Deborah is clearly a strong OT model of female leadership and teaching in the name of God.
  3. Huldah the prophetess in 2 Kings 22:11-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-33 is accorded a unique role of highest authority in speaking and determining the meaning of the “Word of the Lord.” King Josiah, Hilkah the High Priest and the top scribe (scholar) of Judah turn to this woman as God’s authoritative voice for counsel and to clarify the meaning of the written word of the Lord.

New Testament examples of women ministers of the Gospel:

  1. In all four of the Gospel accounts, following the resurrection of Christ, both the angels and the risen Jesus appear first to women—and to them is first given the commission to “go and tell” the Gospel of the risen Christ’s victory over death. See Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:10-18. This commissioning of women as the first to proclaim the Gospel, even to the eleven key disciples of Jesus, is seen by some scholars as an intentional allusion to the beginning of the reversing of the curse of the fall in Genesis. In other words, the woman was the first to fall into the deception of sin in the old creation, and so now the women are the first to share in and proclaim the victory of Jesus over sin and death as He establishes His “new creation.”
  2. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preaches the first great Christian sermon following the coming of the Holy Spirit in power. In this message he uses the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 in a paradigmatic way to set the agenda for the new community of Christ—the Church. The heart of his message is the twice repeated affirmation: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out My spirit on ALL people and your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on My servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days—and THEY will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). There is equality here in the calling of all Christians (men and women, young and old) to be prophetic declarers of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Revelation 19:10 says, “For the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy” (or the Spirit who inspired the prophets). The NLT says: “For the essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus.” This challenge to proclaim Jesus is handed equally to men and women.
  3. Romans 16 is a key chapter on women’s roles in the New Testament Church. Paul sends greetings to the leaders and key teachers of the “house churches” of Rome. In this list, women are both preeminent and prominent. The first mentioned is Phoebe (16:1-2). She is a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea, the same term Paul uses to describe himself (2 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23, 25); and his fellow ministers of the word (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; 4:7). In addition, verse 2 describes her as a “helper” (NASB) or “benefactor” (TNIV). The word prostrates, from which helper or benefactor is translated, means “one who stands before, front-rank man, leader, chief, protector, champion.” This not only affirms her ministry role, but her rank as well.
  4. In Romans 16:3 Paul greets a wife/husband team, giving preeminence to Priscilla, then affirms they are both “my fellow workers,” a term he especially applies to those who share in teaching the Gospel. See Romans 16:9; 1 Corinthians 3:9; Colossians 4:11; see especially Romans 16:21 and 1 Thessalonians 3:2 in reference to Timothy; 2 Corinthians 8:23 in reference to Titus and see especially Philippians 2:25-30 in reference to Epaphroditus. This role in the teaching of the Gospel is confirmed by Acts 18:26 where Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos, an evangelist, the clear and full message of the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 16:19 Paul again mentions this couple as the leaders of a “church in their house.” Priscilla is functioning as a teacher and leader within a “church” community.
  5. In Romans 16:7 Paul speaks of Andronicus and Junia (female) “who are outstanding among the apostles.” In this instance, a woman, Junia, seems, along with a man [who might be her husband] to have the role of an apostle (see Ephesians 4:11-12). Apostles specifically had the task of the equipping (teaching) in the church. See also Romans 16:12, which identifies two other female workers in the church as “workers in the Lord,” a phrase that usually applies to those who teach the Gospel.
  6. In Philippians 4:2-3 Paul affirms Euodia and Syntyche as two women who had “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers.” The whole context puts them on a par with others who labor in sharing the Gospel. See also Colossians 4:15.
  7. Paul ranks apostles and prophets among the highest leadership gifts for equipping the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; Romans 12:6). Yet he not only affirms Junia as outstanding among the apostles (Romans 16:7), he also clearly endorses prophetesses (1 Corinthians 11:5; cf. Acts 2:17-18; 21:9); and among spiritual gifts Paul emphasizes prophecy no less than teaching (1 Corinthians 14:1, 26, 29).

The two New Testament passages, which prohibit women from speaking in church: Are these universal prohibitions?

If the debate over women’s roles was about who had the most verses, the win would go to women in leadership. But we hold the Bible to be God’s inspired Word, so texts can’t be ignored. There are two passages in the New Testament that express the prohibition of women speaking in church. One of these specifically prohibits women as teachers. What should we make of them? Should they be interpreted according to the present cultural conditions and location specific situations or as universal norms for all churches in all places at all times?

First, it is important to establish that in Paul’s writings there are a number of specific commands or prohibitions that are clearly and universally recognized by Christians to be culturally and historically conditioned—and therefore not enforced today. For example:

  • The command by both Paul and Peter (repeated five times in the New Testament) to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). Each time it appears, the call to use a kiss of greeting is in the imperative (command) form, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26 even says to “greet ALL the brethren with a holy kiss.” Yet few, if any, churches require all their members to use a kiss to greet one another at gatherings.
  • Of even greater weight for our discussion is the serious issue of Paul’s commands concerning slavery. They are straightforward and clear—and if not evaluated in a cultural and historical context, seem to offer a strong Christian endorsement of slavery. In 1 Timothy 6:1-4 Paul begins by saying “Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of our God may not be spoken against.” He ends by saying that if anyone disagrees with this teaching “he is conceited and understands nothing.” In Ephesians 6:5 Paul admonishes, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and respect, just as you would obey Christ.”

Christians are quick to point out the historical context of a Roman world where two in every three people were slaves and any direct challenge against slavery brought the full wrath of Rome. But of even greater importance than the historical reality of an oppressive empire was the overall strategy against slavery used by Paul in his writings. Paul did not call for the immediate abolition of slavery. Instead he used the power of the Gospel to elevate the status of slaves in respect to their masters to that of equals in Christ—and therefore true brothers (or sisters) in Christ (see Ephesians 6:8-9; 1 Timothy 6:3-4 and especially Philemon 15-16). Paul does not call for an open slave revolt in the name of Christ, but through the implications of the Gospel he lays the sure foundation for the destruction of slavery.

Through the saving work of Christ, the universal principle of equality of slave and master is clearly identified in Galatians 3:28, a verse that also speaks to the male/female issue of equality. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female—for you are all one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). How could those who are one in Christ, fellow heirs with Christ and equally loved by Christ subject each other to bondage? So, the twice-repeated admonition for slaves to submit and obey their masters is interpreted by virtually all contemporary Christians in a non-literalistic way and within a specific historical context.

The two passages that enjoin silence on women in churches:

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NASB): “Let the women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is improper [disgraceful] for a woman to speak in church.”

  • Observations:
    • “Churches” indicated the gathering of God’s people for worship, fellowship and study, usually in homes. So the prohibition here is against women being allowed to speak in any gathering of Christians.
    • Second, the prohibition is absolute and repeated three times. It is far more restrictive than saying that women are not allowed to teach. It is saying that women are not allowed to speak. They are to maintain silence, not talking, not asking questions, during Christian gatherings. If the verse is a universal principle, it prohibits far more than women serving as teachers or leaders. It enjoins silence on all women at all times in Christian gatherings. This is very odd in light of 1 Corinthians 11:5, where, in the same epistle, Paul very clearly endorses women publicly praying or prophesying during gatherings.

1 Timothy 2:11-15: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she must be silent! For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived—it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

  • Observations:
    • The specific issue here (and in Corinth) seems to be inappropriate and talkative female learners during the study time of the church. There is a problem with disruption due to distracting questions or comments.
    • Once again, the specific prohibition placed on the women in Ephesus, like those in Corinth (and if universal, on all Christian women everywhere), goes well beyond not serving as teachers or leaders.
    • Paul commands total silence from the women at Christian gatherings.

Brief assessment of these two passages:

In both these sets of verses the prohibition on women calls for total silence (no talking, no singing). They are both part of epistles where other problems are also raised that relate to other time-specific situations; where the reasoning, if taken as universal principle, is hard to understand and creates troublesome implications. For example, the lengthy discussion in 1 Corinthians 11 concerning the rule that women must not pray with their hair uncovered and that short hair on a woman is a disgrace; or the brief discussion in 1 Corinthians 15:29 about baptizing the dead. Few, if any, churches still hold these admonitions as literal.

The contextual problem is even more evident in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. If the prohibitions in verses 11-12 are universal and strictly literal principles, without a contextual and historical interpretation, then we should also stay consistent and literal with the remainder of the paragraph (2:13-15). This puts Paul’s analogy here in direct conflict with Romans 5:12-19 and introduces the unfounded doctrine that a necessary part of God’s plan for saving women requires childbearing. Woe to the single or barren woman!

In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 the issue is not concerned with women serving as teachers (teaching is not mentioned). The issue is clearly how women are learning—and the problem is they are learning “too loudly”: “if they desire to learn [question] anything, let them ask their husband at home.” The prohibition is aimed at stopping women from asking disruptive questions and speaking out during the gathering. The counsel is, wait until later to ask questions. Furthermore, the welcoming of women to be educated and trained in the Christian community was countercultural in the first century and a testimony to the value and dignity given to women in the early church.

Two different Greek words can be translated speaking: laleo and lego. Laleo means primarily to utter sounds, not necessarily intelligible words. It was used by Greeks to refer to the jabbering (la-la-ing) of infants. The verses in question use the verb laleo. The present infinitive tense of the verb indicates continuous action. Paul was saying, “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted for them to speak (continue la-la-ing)…. It is a shame for women to speak (go on la-la-ing) in the Church.”

This is consistent with the first-century Jewish and Hellenistic world. Novices were expected to learn quietly, while it was expected that more advanced students could interrupt with questions. Unlearned questions were considered foolish and rude. In both Jewish and Hellenistic culture, women did not receive formal education and were expected to learn quietly in public situations because they were not trained. Because the women were causing disruptions by asking questions of their husbands, creating an undertone (noise), which was distracting and confusing, Paul corrected them. Notice the prohibition (v. 34): don’t ask questions, and the permission (v. 35): to ask questions at home.

In addition, Corinth was a center for temple prostitution. Women who generally spoke in public religious settings in Corinth were temple priestesses (prostitutes). This surely adds significant social dimensions to the concern of Paul—and Paul cared very deeply about cultural concerns (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

Undoubtedly, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is a clear and unequivocal prohibition that women cannot teach or seek authority over the men of the church—instead, they must maintain silence when the community gathers. Is this a universal principle?

The female-teaching situation is clearly part of a larger problem in Ephesus where women are given to excessive adornment (2:9-10) and, more importantly, are attracted and vulnerable to immoral false teachers operating within the community. These false teachers appealed to the weakness and sinfulness of women and their “various impulses,” leading these women into an attitude where they are “always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of truth” (2 Timothy 3:6-7). In spite of their errors, such women were not slow in spreading their views to the community at large (5:11-16).

In fact, the primary problem for the church in Ephesus was the spread of false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3-20; 4:1-7; 6:6-10, 20-21; 2 Timothy 2:16-26; 3:5-13; 4:3-4). Again, traditionally, women in the Hellenistic world were less educated and therefore less discerning of error; and some widows, who had the means (influence) and the time, were quickly spreading nonsense (1 Timothy 5:13). The core problem seems to have been the spread of heresy through ill-informed and ill-equipped female devotees of the false teachers. This larger problem leads Paul to require at least two other situation-specific prohibitions in 1 Timothy 5:9 and 14-15 that few if any would argue should be held out as universal principles. It is a testament to the freeing work of Christ that women in the Christian community were given the freedom to learn and be educated. The statement of Paul for women to not teach is merely because they had not yet been trained.

As a general rule, when interpreting a specific a specific verse or passage, it must always be interpreted through the lens of the larger narrative of the book in which it is found and ultimately through the context of the entire narrative of Scripture.

In the overall context of the Bible, only one New Testament passage specifically forbids women teaching men. This text also requires (together with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) complete silence from all women in all Christian gatherings. First, there is clear evidence that women played an active role in teaching, prophesying and leading in the New Testament church. Therefore, taking these passages as literal and universal principles for all churches in all time is a highly tenuous basis for excluding the teaching and leadership gifts of more than 50% of the Christian community.

Summary of the Mill City Church position on women in ministry:

Taking the overall weight of Scripture, Mill City endorses the active role of women who are gifted in leadership and shepherding, taking a servant leadership role on ministry teams or staff, including serving in the capacity of pastor. It is the position of Mill City that the Bible, when interpreted comprehensively, teaches the full equality of men and women in status, giftedness and opportunity for ministry. Therefore, Mill City Church affirms the participation of women in all levels of leadership, based on spiritual qualification and giftedness. We recognize that this is a complex issue and has historically been the subject of much debate among godly believers. While we respect the right of individuals to hold a different position, we ask that participating members of Mill City minimally be able to affirm with integrity the following:

  • Joyfully submit to the leadership of women in all positions at MCC.
  • Joyfully sit under the teaching of women at Mill City.
  • Refrain from promoting personal interpretations in ways that would be divisive or disruptive regarding this matter.